Photo by Toni Benlliure on Unsplash

THE LITTLE whitetail doe crept to the water’s edge as I stood, with fly rod in hand, waist deep in the sparkling Caddo River. I come to the creek for fishing, but I also come for unexpected magic moments like this.

Suddenly, the doe’s head shot up. She stared hard down the creek. I followed her gaze and saw nothing. Looking back at her, I saw her cotton-bottomed tail slowly rise before she bounded deeper into the woods. Then I heard frothy pop-country music filtering down the creek channel.

The music was a mood killer for the deer—and for me as well.

It wasn’t because I’m not a fan of “new country” (I’m not, but that’s another story). It could have been Hank Sr. or George Jones wailing through the speakers, and I’d still have preferred the tinkle of water over rocks, the call of a belted kingfisher or the wind whispering through sycamore leaves. Catching fish is only one facet of the creek experience. The ambiance created by sights, smells and sounds composes the rest. That ambiance was crushed under the weight of thumping bass and twangy guitars.

I said “howdy” to the paddlers as the convoy floated past. The last guy in line flashed me the “hang loose” hand gesture, cranked the tunes even louder and swigged down the last of his Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

It was another 15 minutes before they were out of earshot.

People venture into the woods and onto the waters in pursuit of many activities—hunting, fishing, hiking, floating, solitude or just the illusion of solitude. These varied interests attract varied personalities, raising the question: How can we all experience natural Arkansas in our own way?

With a little consideration, we can share, and we can even make the experience more enjoyable for others.

Understand that public forests and waters belong to all of us

Arkansas is blessed with an abundance of public lands (nearly 4 million acres of national forest alone) and public waters funded by the taxes, permits and licenses that we purchase. Although it’s sometimes easy for me to imagine that I’m the only person “out there,” I’m not. I often think my chosen outdoor pursuit takes precedence over others’ ideas of a good time in the woods. It doesn’t.

There are a couple of rules I follow so I won’t ruin someone else’s experience while enjoying my particular flavor of outdoor recreation.

First-come, first-served is my rule for camping spots, small swimming holes or favorite hunting/fishing areas. If someone else is already where I planned to be, I go somewhere else.

If I can’t completely avoid an already-occupied area, I give it the widest berth possible. It’s the same courtesy that I hope will be extended to me.

I also consider how much my chosen activity will affect the activities enjoyed by those in proximity. This was the rule the canoeists on the Caddo broke. While music can enhance an outdoor excursion for some, not everyone feels the same way. Loud vehicles, loud conversation, hunting near hikers/campers or fishing in the same hole of water others are swimming in are just a few things to consider.

Really, there’s just one rule, the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated.

Leave it like you found it … or even better

Nothing is more frustrating than to drive down miles of dirt road, maybe hike a few hundred yards to that secluded campsite, and find the place trashed. It takes so little effort to pick up after myself and make a place look virtually untouched. It’s become habit for me to stow a few trash bags in my truck to pick up the mess others have left. Sadly, there’s always an opportunity to do this.

Litter is bad for the environment and bad for the critters, but I also pick up the trash to better the outdoor experience for the next visitor. I owe the environment and the wildlife a debt I can never repay. The same can be said for my fellow taxpayers and license buyers who help ensure that wild places are still there for me to enjoy. I like to think I’m chipping away at that debt, just a little, with some janitor duty.

You don’t live here, but other beings do

We often treat the wildlands and waters like an amusement park, places reserved only for our personal entertainment. While we should absolutely enjoy these beautiful areas and entertainment opportunities of a more primitive variety, these places are so much more than our often anthropocentric thinking realizes.

They are, first and foremost, fully functioning ecosystems. They are communities fine-tuned, yet still evolving, with various organisms dependent on the system and one another. The oaks were planted by squirrels and blue jays, and the acorns feed these creatures, as well as black bears, deer and turkey. The coyotes and rattlesnakes ensure that the rodent population is controlled and, therefore, also help control tick populations. The layers go on and on, forever overlapping, and all of those layers have, over eons, created where we go to get away from the civilized world.

Quiet is the default setting out here. Loud noise is a stressor for wildlife. Keep any other disturbances to soil, rocks, wood, living trees/vegetation and animals to a minimum. Stacked rocks on the creek bank may look like art to you, but the rocks were once home to crayfish, salamanders and multitudes of invertebrates. And if you’ve ever watched the work a crayfish puts into finding the perfect rock and excavating a residence underneath it, you’ll never feel the same way about stacked rocks. Extend the Golden Rule beyond your human neighbors.

There’s still a lot of wild left in Arkansas. Thoughtful practices, while you’re out in it, are essential for other folks to enjoy it and for the well-being of those very places, too. 

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